As the country races to vaccinate as many Americans as possible against COVID-19, both New York and California are reporting new virus variants that might be more contagious than the original strain.
NY variant may create vaccine issues
In New York, a new variant that carries a mutation that may weaken the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines has been identified as the B.1.526 variant. It was first discovered in November, and now accounts for about one in four viral sequences in a database shared by scientists, according to the New York Times.
In a paper published today from Columbia University, the authors noted a steady increase in the detection rate of B.1.526 cases from late December to mid-February, with a rise of 12.3% in the past 2 weeks.
Cases have been detected across New York City, researchers said, and threaten to once again make the city a hot spot of viral infection. They say the strain's "unique set of spike mutations may also pose an antigenic challenge for current interventions," such as vaccines and monoclonal antibody therapies.
California variant dominant strain in 44 counties
In California, variant B.1.427/B.1429 now makes up more than 50% of cases in 44 counties, according to the Washington Post. Researchers believe that strain is more transmissible because of a mutation that enables the virus to more easily bind to human receptor cells.
None of the studies on emerging US variants are peer reviewed, so the authors caution that more investigation is needed, and more genetic sequencing must be done throughout the country to identify any novel variants.
Despite the new variants, infections continue to decrease throughout much of the country. The United States reported 69,828 new COVID-19 infections yesterday and 2,284 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker. In total, US officials have recorded 28,396,896 cases and 507,803 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins map.
Pfizer, Moderna explore variant protection
Both Pfizer and Moderna announced yesterday they are testing their mRNA vaccines against current variants, and in Moderna's case, it has shipped a new vaccine targeting the B1315 (South African) variant to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Pfizer and BioNTech say they are testing if a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine will trigger an enhanced immune response against new variants, according to CNBC. They are also in talks with regulatory authorities about testing a new vaccine modified to target the B1351 variant.
Moderna yesterday announced it has shipped a vaccine against the B1351 variant to the NIH.
"Leveraging the flexibility of our mRNA platform, we are moving quickly to test updates to the vaccines that address emerging variants of the virus in the clinic," Stephane Bancel, MBA, chief executive officer of Moderna, said in a press release yesterday.
"Moderna is committed to making as many updates to our vaccine as necessary until the pandemic is under control. We hope to demonstrate that booster doses, if necessary, can be done at lower dose levels, which will allow us to provide many more doses to the global community in late 2021 and 2022 if necessary."
CDC launches vaccine website
Since the B117 variant was identified in the United Kingdom, experts have warned that vaccination is a race that must be won before more transmissible, and possibly deadly, COVID-19 variants escape current vaccine protection.
Today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID Data Tracker shows 88,669,035 COVID-19 vaccines doses have been delivered in the country, and 66,464,947 have been administered, with 20,607,262 Americans receiving two doses.
To facilitate that all Americans more easily understand when they can get a vaccine, the CDC is launching a new website, VaccineFinder, that allows Americans to search for COVID-19 vaccine providers with a stock of vaccines near where they live.
The website allows users to search for vaccines by entering their zip code. According to National Public Radio, unlike volunteer-run websites, the new finder relies on healthcare providers to enter their inventory every 24 hours into a database.
Though every state has different criteria for who is prioritized to get a vaccine, the American Association for Cancer Research yesterday sent a letter to President Biden, urging him to prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for cancer patients.